Waffle House

“It is indeed marvelous.  An irony-free zone, where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts.  Where everybody, regardless of race, creed, color, or degree of inebriation, is welcomed.  Its warm yellow glow a beacon of hope and salvation inviting the hungry, the lost, the seriously hammered, all across the South to to come inside.  A place of safety and nourishment.  It never closes.  It is always, ALWAYS faithful.  Always there FOR YOU.”

Those were the wise words of the late, great Anthony Bourdain, from his Parts Unknown episode where he visited a Waffle House restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina.

The man did so much for broadening people’s views about food, between his brilliant books, like Kitchen Confidential and A Cook’s Tour, and his fascinating food shows, like No Reservations and Parts Unknown.  He encouraged us to experiment and try new things in new places with new people, to step out of our culinary comfort zones, challenge our sensibilities, and open ourselves up to new, potentially life-changing experiences.  As a food blogger, he is one of my greatest influences, in terms of his unique voice (both his writing style and his soothing TV show narration), his curiosity and empathy, and his sense of adventure.

Bourdain knew a good meal when he saw it, whether it was five-star fine dining or some dirty, dangerous dive halfway across the globe.  I always appreciated that he spoke so highly of Waffle House (https://www.wafflehouse.com/), that ubiquitous-yet-humble chain of 24-hour Southern diners, and highlighted it on his show.

I also unironically love Waffle House.  It is practically synonymous with a “greasy spoon,” and sometimes infamous for unsavory late-night antics.  But the truth is, you can get a delicious, hearty, affordable meal there at any time of the day or night, prepared right before your eyes in an open kitchen.  I am lucky enough to live near the best Waffle House location ever — always spotless, fast, and friendly no matter when you show up, with impeccable, satisfying, soul-nourishing food.  Scoff all you want — if you’re still skeptical, that just means you’ve been denying yourself one of the greatest comfort food experiences to be had in the South.

I’ve been composing this Waffle House review and compiling photos for months, over the course of several separate visits with my wife.  But today was Anthony Bourdain’s birthday, so it felt like the right thing to do to go back tonight, to reminisce about the life and legacy of one of the greatest foodies of all, to indulge our senses and think about all the entertainment and education the man provided us over the years.  We were also joined by some members of the Orlando Foodie Forum presented by Tasty Chomps, a Facebook group that has also broadened my culinary horizons and introduced me to some amazing new friends.  It felt right to commune with these fellow foodies and Bourdain fans, and to talk and laugh and share food with them, tonight of all nights.  We learned all the right lessons.

Even if you aren’t familiar with the glory of Waffle House, you may have heard of their flawless hash browns and all the different ways you can order them:

  • Smothered with grilled onions
  • Covered with melted cheese
  • Chunked with grilled smoked ham
  • Diced with grilled tomatoes
  • Peppered with pickled jalapeno peppers
  • Capped with grilled button mushrooms (more for y’all!)
  • Topped with Bert’s Chili
  • Country with sausage gravy

I am perfectly happy to eat my hash browns straight up with ketchup, but I do love them smothered and covered as a special treat.  My wife prefers hers plain, as usual.  Tonight one of our dinner companions ordered hers covered, chunked, and peppered.  (I hope you’re writing this down, I’m gonna test ya later!)
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The All-Star Special is a bargain and also a challenge: fried eggs (you can get them in other styles), accompanied by smothered hash browns (dig the grilled onions) and buttery white toast.  Tonight I was feeling like a big shot, so I got cheese on my eggs with a specific purpose in mind:DSC02279

A picture from an earlier visit, this time with no cheese on the eggs, and thicker grilled and buttered Texas toast, superior to the white toast:
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We both love their very crispy bacon, which is my wife’s go-to breakfast meat at any time of day:20190216_220330_resized

You can choose between bacon, sausage, and ham for this All-Star Special, or pay a slight upcharge for a large cut of rich, salty, bone-in country ham, bursting with far more flavor than the “everyday” ham.  The country ham is my new favorite.  Obviously the texture is totally different, but it always reminds me of prosciutto, one of my favorite foods in the whole world.
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As if that wasn’t enough, the All-Star Special also includes a plain waffle, which I believe is made with Golden Malted waffle and pancake mix, the best commercial mix I’ve ever found.  It isn’t the hardest thing in the world to make waffles or pancakes from scratch at home, but I buy that mix now to try (in vain) to recreate the perfection of a Waffle House waffle.  The outside is always crispy, the inside is always fluffy.  Anyway, if I ordered this one in the photo, it would soon be doused in syrup:DSC02070

Here’s a waffle topped with peanut butter chips, from another visit.  You can also get chocolate chips and even pecans.  They have even offered peach waffles in past summers, which is a pro-tier move from this Atlanta, Georgia-based company.  I’m looking forward to peach waffle season.  20190305_212120_resized

Grits!  Not my favorite, but my wife sure loves ’em.  I’m assuming these are the real deal, as no self-respecting Southerner would make instant grits.20190222_191021_resized

And she turned me onto the grilled, split, soft and buttery biscuits, which she likes instead of toast, with a little butter and jam.  You can also order a biscuit sandwich with eggs, cheese, and the breakfast meat of your choice.
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This is another one of my favorites, the Texas sausage, egg, and cheese melt, on grilled and buttered Texas toast, with added grilled onions.  I like mustard on my eggs, mmmm hmmmm.  Pure breakfast perfection at any time of day (or night), but I hate eating in the morning.  We’re much more likely to go there for dinner.DSC02252

Tonight, another one of my adventurous friends ordered something I’ve never tried before: the new Cheesesteak Melt Hashbrown Bowl, which is pretty self-explanatory: a large order of hash browns covered with melted cheese and topped with cheesesteak and grilled onions.  Everything a growing boy needs, it’s the breakfast of champions, even at 8:30 on a Tuesday night.  DSC02283

But Waffle House is about so much more than just breakfast food!  I actually love their burgers.

This is my standard: the $2 double “original” Angus cheeseburger that comes with two patties, melted cheese, and grilled onions on a grilled, buttered bun, with pickles and a packet of delicious WH Sauce, which is similar to chipotle mayo.  (It is a Heinz product, and I wish they sold it in bottles!)  It’s very much like an old-school diner burger, like the burger you imagine being served at a diner in a Tom Waits song.  It is better than just about any fast food burgers.  DID I MENTION IT IS $2?  It may be the best $2 you’ll ever spend on food.  20190222_190853_resized

Again, a better photo from a different visit.  I think American cheese is the ultimate cheese for burgers and grilled cheese sandwiches, for how nicely it melts.  Yeah, come at me, bro.
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Here’s one adorned with that WH Sauce:DSC02251

And here’s tonight’s burger, pre-WH Saucing, side by side with one of those wondrous waffles.  Don’t worry, they don’t serve them on the same plate, but we had six people at our tiny table, so I was trying to consolidate:DSC02280

One day they were out of burger buns, so I asked if they could serve the burger on grilled Texas toast.  They happily obliged, and I think it was even better — kinda like a patty melt.  Pardon the blurriness.
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My wife swears by Waffle House’s grilled pork chops, always with her beloved hash browns.  These have supplanted eggs and bacon as her standard order, although she still loves the grits, waffles, and biscuits too.  They are surprisingly tender, juicy, flavorful, bone-in pork chops.  Ask for the “seasoning” — it is just a salt and pepper blend, but it adds a unique touch, and they aren’t the same without it.  DSC02254

Chops ‘n’ browns:
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More chops ‘n’ browns:
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And if you decide you want picante sauce for your hash browns, eggs, sandwiches, or burgers, I love that the brand is Senora Jackie’s Casa de Waffle.  This was old news to us, but our table-mates got a real kick out of it.
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Waffle House usually has good sweet iced tea, and I like my iced tea like I like my women: sweet, strong, chillin’, and with lemon.  But usually I’ll get a vanilla Coke or vanilla root beer there, on top of all those other carbs.  They actually squirt real vanilla syrup into the fountain beverage, which makes a nice difference.  I can’t speak for the coffee, since I rarely touch the stuff.

Waffle House restaurants all have another beloved feature: a jukebox, loaded up with pop hits, golden oldies, and a surprising number of novelty songs written ABOUT Waffle HouseFun fact: Waffle House even has its own record label!  I rarely indulge with the jukebox, which is odd, because I love foisting… uh, sharing my musical tastes with others.  But tonight I spared our new friends and the stalwart staff, lest I be tempted to queue up some Tom Jones on repeat.

And one more fun fact about the Waffle House I think you should know: it is often the first business up and running again after hurricanes and other natural disasters!  Because it stays open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) refers to the “Waffle House Index” in terms of the severity and impact of the disaster.  According to this transcribed National Public Radio interview, “If a Waffle House is closed because a disaster is bad, [FEMA calls] it red. If they’re open but have a limited menu, that’s yellow… And a completely open, full-menu Waffle House is green.”  A Waffle House spokesman said “If we’re opening up quickly, that’s a good sign that community is going to come back quickly.  If we are on a limited menu, that’s probably because we’re – have some utilities out, so it’s going to take a bit longer for that community to come back.”  So as we edge in those scary Southern summer months that occasionally bring hurricanes, maybe pay as close attention to your local Waffle House as you do to your favorite telegenic weatherperson.

The world is certainly not the same without Anthony Bourdain, and I think about him whenever I try a new dish, a new restaurant, or a new city… and also whenever I end up at my friendly neighborhood Waffle House.  Tonight, over a late dinner with my winsome, wondrous wife — the person I love most in the world — and some really great new foodie friends, Bourdain was on our minds and in our hearts.  That fellowship, the fact that I found my way onto a local food forum on Facebook, the fact that I started this blog just over a year ago and bother writing about food at all — I can trace all of it back to him.  So on his birthday, a year after we lost him, I mourned and celebrated the man, I ate good food with good people, and I thought long and hard about how lucky we all are to be able to do that.

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Luke’s Kitchen and Bar

Luke’s Kitchen and Bar (http://eatatlukes.com/) is in a beautiful, modern, comfortable location along 17-92 in Maitland, nestled between Winter Park and Casselberry, and easily accessible via I-4.  The restaurant location has been a few other things over the years, including a Steak & Ale location for the longest time.  However, Luke’s owner/operator Brandon McGlamery (who also runs the tony Luma and Prato on Park Avenue in nearby Winter Park) has the business skills and culinary talent to make Luke’s a success.

I recently visited Luke’s for the first time with some colleagues, just in time for happy hour.  Fun was had by all, and I would definitely return.  Dear readers, please keep in mind I did not order nor eat all of this food.  This was everything that five people shared.

Fresh potato chips served with a high-class version of French onion dip (that might have had a bit of bleu cheese blended in).  These were a crowd-pleaser.  The chips were thin, light, and crispy; not greasy at all, and not too crunchy like kettle chips.DSC01850

French fries with thyme, rosemary, and sea salt.  I didn’t order these.  They were perfectly okay, but I will always choose chips over fries.DSC01852

A mid-Atlantic take on a chilled shrimp cocktail, with the shrimp seasoned with Old Bay:DSC01851

This was my wee little fried oyster po’boy.  It was on the happy hour menu for the shocking price of $4, so I figured “How could I go wrong?”  Well, it was delicious, but it was the size of a slider.  Maybe I should not have been surprised, but it was so tasty I wasn’t disappointed.  DSC01853

Following the trend of wee foods, Luke’s supposedly has amazing deviled eggs.  I didn’t feel like a whole order of them, so I was overjoyed when our patient server said I could order just one, to try it.  It was one of the better deviled eggs I’ve ever had, garnished with excellent crispy shallots and tasty shishito pepper jam that was the shi-shit.DSC01857

Roasted eggplant dip (AKA babganoush), served with cucumber, mint, and multigrain toast.  I don’t think I even tried this one, but my babaganoush-loving co-worker was really happy with it.DSC01854

A very good and very thicc cheeseburger, from the happy hour menu.  Served simply with lettuce, tomato, PICKLED onion (niiiice), and I think there were pickles on it too (which I’m getting better at eating and enjoying).  It came out a perfect medium-rare, and was extremely juicy.  I offered my friends a chance to try this one, but it ended up being all mine.DSC01855

I ordered these for the group, because I am a class act: outstanding fluffy Parker House rolls, served with the most delicious caramelized honey butter (spread onto the wooden serving board in the background).  You can never go wrong with Parker House-style yeast rolls. DSC01858

And the coup de grace: mussels, which I ordered to share with everyone, but these were most decidedly NOT on the happy hour menu, so they cost around $20.  They did, however, come garnished beautifully with tomato, fennel, purple basil, and grilled, oil-rubbed sourdough bread.  They were great, but we all would have been fine without them.DSC01859

So Luke’s is definitely a solid choice for happy hour, or lunch or dinner if you prefer.  It could be a great destination if you’re planning to catch a movie afterwards in Winter Park or at the Enzian, our beloved art-house movie theater right near the restaurant in Maitland.  Luke’s location is perfect if you’re considering a romantic after-dinner stroll around lovely Lake Lily, essentially across the street.  Happy hour would be ideal for that, since the park stays open until sunset.

Luke’s has a large menu, attentive staff, and my colleagues who ordered cocktails seemed over-the-moon pleased with them.  Chef McGlamery and his crew seem to be doing everything right.  Whether you’re there to hang out with friends, celebrate with family, impress a hot date, or just decompress after a long work week, I think you will agree.  I hate to be the guy that says this, but Luke’s, the Force will be with you… always.

My Top Five Dishes of 2018 list made the Orlando Weekly!

I’ve been a huge fan of the Orlando Weekly ever since I first moved here in 2004.  Now this city is my home, and if my finger is ever on the pulse of local culture, the Weekly is a major reason why.

In 2017, they offered me my first professional gig as a food writer when they asked me to list my Top Five Dishes of 2017.  It was a huge honor for me, and I’ve been coasting on it all year.

I recently had the opportunity to make a new list for the Orlando Weekly, with my Top Five Dishes of 2018, and they were kind enough to even link to this very blog!  Please check it out, and check out my Saboscrivner reviews of these excellent local restaurants as well:

LaSpada’s Original Cheese Steaks and Hoagies

Kai Asian Street Fare

Cappadocia Turkish Cuisine

Poke Hana

Orlando Meats

Ring the Alarm! Raglan Road

This past weekend, my wife and I journeyed to Disney Springs to see the ridiculously talented singer/songwriter/rapper/dancer/actress Janelle Monae perform at the House of Blues.  Needless to say, she was incredible.  I’ve been a fan of her Afro-futuristic feminist funk-soul-pop-hip hop-R&B for almost a decade, and this was our first opportunity to see her live.  If you ever get the chance to see her, DO IT.  You won’t regret it.  She might be the most talented and culturally relevant female musician out there right now, and yes, I did consider your favorite artist.  I would be thrilled to introduce my readers to her best material, but here’s her song “Americans” off her new album Dirty Computer, which I think serves as an anthem and rallying cry for the progressive, inclusive, empathetic resistance in 2018: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=POZNheF-KdY

Anyway, we’ve had good, bad, and plenty of so-so experiences dining at Disney Springs, so we opted to return to an old favorite, the boisterous Irish pub Raglan Road.  Sprawling, loud, and crowded, you can always count on a festive atmosphere, solid food, and friendly service.  This evening, they had a three-piece Irish band playing Celtic folk music, along with winsome Irish dancers clogging away on a central stage. Sometimes it can be too loud to have a conversation, but we were seated a decent distance from the stage, ironically in the “Music Room,” where we could hear and enjoy the music perfectly without it drowning out each other’s voices.

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It’s hard to not get caught up in the welcoming old-country vibe and party atmosphere of the place, and I’ve never been to Ireland and don’t think I have any Irish in me. But when I listen to the Pogues, I feel a strong kinship with Irish culture, and when I set foot in a good pub, I feel the same.  Not bad for a guy who doesn’t even drink!

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Of course, every meal at Raglan Road starts with slices of rich, brown Irish soda bread, served with a masterful dipping sauce that is Guinness stout ale reduced with sugar and mixed with olive oil.  It is so good, and it sets the tone for everything to follow.  Sorry I didn’t get a picture this time.

On previous visits, we have defaulted to Irish pub classics like fish and chips, bangers and mash, or bacon loin and cabbage (much more traditional than the 19th Century New York City substitution of corned beef and cabbage).  Once we arrived early enough on a Sunday for them to offer a full Irish breakfast option, which I had to go for (much to the chagrin of my body).  My favorite part is always the black pudding (AKA blood sausage), and I’m 100% serious.  It is delicious, and I wish it was a regular menu item.

This time, the menu had several new options since the last time we were there (maybe two years ago), so we decided to split two entrees that were new to us.  My wife loves sea scallops, pork belly, and gnocchi, those chewy, potatoey dumplings, so she had a hard time saying no to the “Gnocchi See, Gnocchi Do,” with handmade potato gnocchi, seared Georges bank scallops, crispy pork belly, tomatoes, and kale in a white wine butter sauce.  She was kind enough to share some of it with me, although she gave me one whole scallop and the dish only came with three!  That’s true love, folks.

They were really big scallops, perfectly seared, sweet and buttery.  But I almost hate ordering scallops at restaurants because you can usually end up counting them on one hand.  The tomatoes were halved grape tomatoes.  She’s not a tomato fan and I got too full to finish them.  I would have preferred regular diced tomatoes, or better yet, sun-dried tomatoes, which would have added another nice texture and a little sweetness.

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I asked what her second choice was, so I could order that and share it with her.  We both love game meats, or any gamier meat, so we were both tempted by the Boaring Burger, a grilled wild boar burger with Cashel blue cheese, crispy onion strings, arugula, port and pear chutney, and herb aioli, served on a floury potato bun.  We both thought the wild boar was a little dry, but at least it had a nice flavor (much more interesting than most pork, which I find almost as bland as boneless, skinless chicken breasts).  There was nothing “boaring” about it!

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The burger had a lot of contrasting tastes and textures that worked well together, and the bun held it all in place well.  It even came with a nice little side salad, and a crunchy sweet pickle garnish.  Believe it or not, I’m not generally a fan of pickles, but I am working on developing more of an appreciation for them.

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And since I had a choice of side and the fries/chips walking out of the kitchen looked a little light and unappealing, I opted for onion rings.  That’s right, folks, this ended up being a RING THE ALARM! feature!  (Cue the air horns!)

I must admit, these are not my favorite kinds of onion rings.  They were huge, and the batter was thick, heavy, and crunchy, but at least not overly greasy.  I suspect it may be the same kind of batter they use for their fried fish, but despite being referred to as “beer battered onion rings” on the menu, they aren’t the golden-brown beer battered rings I’m on a never-ending quest for.  But for a change, my wife actually liked them — or at least the crunchy batter.  She peeled a few of them and left the onions behind for me!

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Raglan Road has one of my all-time favorite desserts, a rich bread and butter pudding that almost defies explanation, especially because I haven’t had it in a few years.  But we were both very full, she had already had mini-cupcakes from the nearby Sprinkles bakery, and we had a concert to go to at a sold-out venue with limited restrooms, so I figured “Why tempt fate?”  Get to be my age, you Millennials, and you’ll start enjoying the same interior monologues with every meal YOU eat.

Sláinte!

Teak Neighborhood Grill

Teak Neighborhood Grill (http://teakorlando.com/) is an underrated gem of a restaurant that opened near us in 2017. Teak already had a location across town in the MetroWest area, but the second location in Maitland is much more convenient for us.

We especially like going for an early lunch on weekends, right when they open at 11 AM.  That’s when they have their brunch menu as an alternative to the regular menu, and my wife loves their chicken and waffles.  The waffles are thick, Belgian-style, with the slightest bit of caramelization around the edges, making them a perfect consistency of crispy outsides and soft, chewy insides.  The chicken breasts are buttermilk-dipped and hand-breaded, always moist, never dry or greasy.  They also include bacon and some very nice, crispy breakfast potatoes.

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I don’t think I’ve ever gone to Teak and not ordered a burger, though.  They have 18 different burgers listed on their website menu (plus the $45 “Teak Challenge” burger, which is the last thing I need), but if you go, ask for their “secret burger menu,” and you’ll get a long, laminated list of about 20 more varieties.  Their burgers are among the best in town, and I usually try to pick a different one every time, to keep things from getting stale.  I always ask for them medium-rare, and they always cook them to perfection.

This time, I ordered the caprese burger off the secret menu, which comes with melty provolone cheese, fried mozzarella, pesto sauce, balsamic glaze, spring mix, and tomato on a ciabatta roll.  The only thing that gave me pause was the ciabatta, since I sometimes find those rolls a little too crusty and hard, and I’d much rather have a burger on a potato bun, brioche, or pretzel roll.  But I’m glad I put my faith in Teak’s system, as it was  a very good roll that held everything together.  It looks hard to eat, but I was able to squish it down pretty flat, and all the flavors worked very well together.  I really love balsamic glaze, and I’m a sucker for fried mozzarella — when my students ask me if I can recommend any apps, I will go into dad mode and blurt out “Mozzarella sticks!”  Every.  Time.

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You get a choice of sides, including good fries and decent onion rings, but since I discovered Teak has excellent chili, I always get a cup of chili as my side.  Hey, it cuts the carbs a little, plus I love chili, and everyone always has a completely unique version that is worth trying.  (See also: meatloaf, pimiento cheese, and of course onion rings.)  Theirs is a thick, beanless, red chili that has a lot of flavor, but not much in the way of heat.  I actually brought it home and ate it the next day mixed with a little bit of leftover pasta shells.  Yes, my family ate chili over pasta long before we learned it was a whole thing in Cincinnati.  We called it “Cowboy Spaghetti,” and I’ll defend it to the death.  But I digress.

That caprese burger again:

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Looking through the starters (appetizers), we have tried Teak’s OMG Chips before (housemade potato chips topped with blue cheese crumbles and maple bacon drizzled with balsamic reduction), as well as their soft pretzel rolls, and both are great.  But this time, we inquired about ordering a mysterious-sounding side item called Sidewinders as an app, and our server assured us we would love them.  Hey, we’re fun, daring people who live on the edge!  Why not?  I’ll try anything once, and usually twice, just to be sure.

The Sidewinders were twisty potato slices, fried until they had crispy outsides and soft insides, like really great steak fries, but almost as thin as kettle chips.  They were tossed in a “garlic bistro” seasoning with lots of herbs, and the seasoning really made them.  I’m a big weirdo who can take or leave a lot of fries, but these were delicious, and I’m glad we gave them a chance.

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As you can see, they came with a sauce that, to quote Homer Simpson, “It looks like ketchup, it tastes like ketchup, but brother, it ain’t ketchup!”  I thought it was some kind of fancy barbecue sauce, so when I asked, our server told us it was…

Wait for it…

Their housemade ketchup.

Normally it’s Heinz or the highway for me, as I’ve sampled some weird ketchups that taste too much like Christmas, but this was really good.  Make sure you order something you can dip in ketchup when you go to Teak!

The restaurant is a huge dining room with ample seating on the outside patio, with a welcoming, casual vibe.  For weekend brunches, they put out a build-your-own Bloody Mary bar, which I suspect is a huge selling point for most people.  You can add all kinds of marinated and pickled vegetables (pickles, banana pepper rings, cocktail onions), cheese cubes, over a dozen different hot sauces, and more to your Bloody Mary, but some of us don’t need any help with getting acid reflux.

I suspect not enough people are aware of Teak, but it’s a fantastic option if you’re in Maitland, Winter Park, Casselberry, or anywhere near the MetroWest location, which is nowhere near us.  Especially if you like a tasty burger, I’d say they serve some of the better burgers in Orlando.  Service is always great, prices are reasonable, and the menu has something for everyone.  I asked them once if they served their burgers as veggie burgers, and they confirmed that they can make anything as a black bean burger, so that may also help some of you come to a decision.

Se7en Bites

For many years, I have been a champion of Se7en Bites (http://www.se7enbites.com/), the local bakery and restaurant run by the delightful Chef Trina Gregory-Propst, a woman I am honored to call a friend.  Ever since I first tasted her Signature Dark Chocolate Sea Salt Caramel Pecan Pie at another local establishment, Pom Pom’s Teahouse and Sandwicheria, I knew she was a master of her craft.  It is, and still remains, the finest pie crust I’ve ever had.  This is praise of the highest order, as I will always choose pie over all other desserts.  Long before The Saboscrivner, long before the Orlando Foodie Forum on Facebook, I used to post about local food on the Florida forum of the website Chowhound.com, and I remember being the first to review her awe-inspiring pie on the entire Internet.  As far as I was concerned, a star was born.

This was several years ago, long before Chef Trina founded her own place, Se7en Bites.  It started out in Orlando’s “Milk District” on Primrose and Robinson, in a very small space that regularly had lines out the door, especially for weekend breakfasts and brunches.  Peering over the counter at the array of beautiful baked goods was like looking through a window into Willy Wonka’s factory: a world of pure imagination, crafted from sugar, flour, and love.  We didn’t go as often as we liked, simply due to the crowds, but it was always a feast for the senses, as well as a great place to bring my co-workers and occasional out of town guests to show them one of Orlando’s best independent eateries.

Chef Trina became successful enough to expand to a larger location with much more parking on Primrose, just south of Colonial.  And in 2017, she received a well-deserved accolade that some restauranteurs only dream of: Se7en Bites was featured on Guy Fieri’s ubiquitous and beloved Food Network show Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, which only added to her status as a local legend.  (That was Season 26, episode 10, “Wonder Women,” in case you’re ever lucky enough to catch a replay.)  Once she started serving burgers (which are amazing!), I named her Italian Stallion burger one of my top five dishes of 2017 in a feature I wrote for the Orlando Weekly in their last issue of the year, but I’m no Guy Fieri, I get it. (I spent much of the late ’90s and 2000s wearing shirts straight out of the “hipster doofus collection,” just like his, though.)

Needless to say, it has been a pleasure to watch Chef Trina become a recognized and respected face of Orlando’s culinary community, and my wife and I have been huge fans from the beginning!  Whenever we go to Se7en Bites, we always get the friendliest service and some of my favorite food in Orlando.  Whether we choose handmade burgers with ranch-seasoned crinkle-cut fries, buttermilk garlic breakfast biscuits heaped with bacon and eggs, or meatloaf sandwiches with a mashed potato schmear, we know we’re always in for a treat.  Chef Trina never fails to come out of her bustling kitchen to check on us, and she always asks how my wife is doing when I pop in alone, as I did last Friday.

I was just planning to bring a crack pie home to her, that rich, custardy concoction popularized by another delightful designer of delectable desserts, Chef Christina Tosi of New York’s Momofuku Milk Bar.  It’s a small, individual-sized pie that we ended up splitting into quarters, with a buttery crust and a creamy, sticky center, dusted with powdered sugar.  Like most of Se7en Bites’ pies, it is small — just a 5″ diameter, but rich and thick enough for two people to easily share and be satisfied.

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Chef Trina, knowing our mutual love for croissants, strongly recommended I bring home her new lavender honey butter croissants, and how could I refuse that?  They weren’t enormous, so I got one for each of us.  And when we enjoyed them the following morning for breakfast (since we tried to not make this CarbChella Fest ’18), they were definitely fine croissants, hon hon hon!  I wonder how it would be if it was just honey butter, without the lavender.  Still pretty amazing, I have no doubt.

20180720_190410_resized(Pardon the end I ripped off — it was hard to resist the buttery aroma and perfect pastry texture before remembering I need to be documenting this!)

That day, they also had “Beach Bum cheesecake” listed on a chalkboard of daily specials, so I had to ask what that was.  It was a mini-cheesecake with mango, coconut, and something else I’m blanking on at the moment, which instantly became something I couldn’t live without.  I love cheesecake and tropical fruit, so I had to have it!  When I brought it home, my wife was a little skeptical, but she ended up loving it too, and concluded that it was far better cheesecake than the Cheesecake Factory (which I wholeheartedly agree with, because Cheesecake Factory cheesecake is totally overrated).  That one didn’t last long enough for me to take a photo, but it has a nice, moist graham cracker bottom crust, and the whole thing was just about 5″ diameter, like most of Chef Trina’s pies.

As usual, I should have taken more pictures, but this really was just a quick pop-in for one dessert item that ended up becoming four.  We’ll be back to Se7en Bbites without fail, and I’ll report more on it then.  But for now, I’m so glad it exists here in Orlando.  It’s a real treasure, and so are Chef Trina and her lovely staff.

Ring the Alarm! Blue Jacket Grille

Occasionally you’ll see posts titled “Ring the Alarm!,” so you’ll know onion ring reviews are coming.  I love onion rings, and I’m always on a quest for good ones.  Sadly, there are a lot of mediocre-to-bad onion rings out there.  Yesterday, I had some of the best around.

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Yesterday I had a working lunch with two of my co-workers and our supervisor.  We went to the nautical- and Navy-themed Blue Jacket Grille (https://bluejacketgrille.com/), moments from work.  It’s so great to have this relatively new restaurant close at hand.  This was my fourth visit in about six months, and the food has yet to disappoint.

I almost always order a burger there, and not just any burger, but the Pimento Cheese burger, which comes with a fried green tomato slice, and of course, what Mike Ehrmantraut referred to as the “caviar of the South” on Better Call Saul: pimento cheese.  I became obsessed with pimento cheese after trying it on one of the best burgers of my life at the Stock and Barrel in Knoxville, Tennessee, back in 2013.  Orlando has some mighty fine pimento purveyors, including Blue Jacket Grille, The Coop, Se7enbites, and Swine and Sons.  I make my own now, too.  Just like chili, meatloaf, and salsa, everyone’s version is different, but it’s hard to go wrong.

Also, this burger comes on marble rye, but I always request it on a soft brioche bun instead.  They cook it medium rare, as most tasty burgers should be cooked, and automatically serve it with lettuce, tomato, onion, and pickle, as most tasty burgers should be served.

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And of course, because I love onion rings enough to make Ring the Alarm! a regular feature on The Saboscrivner, I got onion rings as my side with the burger.  The choice was a no-brainer; these are some of the best onion rings in town.  Golden-fried, beer-battered, not overly greasy, not too thick or too thin, the onion doesn’t come whipping out of the breading to whack you in the face — they’re perfect in every way.  Definitely in the top five best onion rings in town.  I had already turned one of my co-workers onto these rings, and I was pleased to note that she and our supervisor split an order of their own.

Blue Jacket Grille is in the former location of the Smiling Bison (now in Sanford), and Redlight, Redlight (now in Audubon Park) before that, on Bennett just north of Colonial.  It’s a nice little neighborhood place, with everything you’d expect to find on a sports bar or family restaurant menu, just done better than most.  I’d rather eat here than the Ale House, Chili’s, or most other restaurants of that style any day.  They also have really terrific beer cheese, which comes with lightly-toasted pretzel slices, and if you want tots, they will bring you a HUGE basket of tots.  There are TVs all over the walls, mostly tuned to sports, if you can’t eat without that.  They have trivia nights on Tuesdays and karaoke nights some other night, which I have every intention of making it to some day.  I love both, but nobody else I know does.  Cue the sad trombone for me!